Growers saw the issue of ethical labour return to the spotlight again this week, amid worrying signs that the fresh produce sector may not be gearing up to deal with new rules on gangmasters that will come in later this year.

With three months to go before the Gangmasters Act 2004 comes into force, fewer than a third of the government's target of 1,000 companies have registered with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Anyone who uses migrant labour from an unregistered company faces heavy financial penalties and even prison.

Terry Waite, general manager of Vital Recruitment, said that he would have expected better take-up on the part of the industry. "With Christmas rapidly approaching, the question is whether there will be enough workers and fieldmen available. Where will all the labour come from?"

A number of smaller packhouses in Lincolnshire were not aware of the seriousness of the issue, despite the efforts of retailers, marketers and the authority, he said.

"There will be red faces up there when they realise they should be using licensed labour."

A taste of things to come was given to strawberry grower Mansfield Farms this week, when Sainsbury suspended supplies pending the outcome of an inquiry into claims that workers had been paid less than the minimum wage.

Mansfield blamed it on an administrative error that meant that pickers paid according to the weight of fruit they harvested were not having pay cheques made up to the legal minimum of £5.30/hour if they underperformed.

KG Fruits markets fruit from Kent growers including Mansfield Farms, but denied that the problems were widespread.

Sales director Nick Marsden told The Grocer: "We do everything we can to make sure all our suppliers comply with the legislation. Growers are very aware of their obligations under the agricultural wages order."